Diet or Exercise: Which is Better for Weight Loss?

by Cristina Goyanes
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Diet or Exercise: Which is Better for Weight Loss?

There’s this nasty rumor that exercise won’t help you lose weight. The more you work out, the more you’ll eat because, well, you need to rebuild those muscles you just broke down. And for some folks that means they deserve a little something extra for the hard effort — like that yummy, pimped-out burrito you ordered on Seamless.

While this scenario might sound familiar (hello, Tuesday night), new science suggests that exercise does not necessarily increase your appetite or make you crave junk food. Conversely, if you skip the run or spin class and choose to cut calories instead, you might end up binge-eating later, reports the new study from Loughborough University published this spring in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“There’s a big debate at the moment about the extent to which the increased prevalence of overweight and obesity in the world might be due to overeating versus a lack of exercise,” says lead study author David Stensel, PhD, a professor of exercise metabolism at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University in the UK. “We set out to compare men and women’s responses to two particular hormones, ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and peptide YY, which suppresses appetite, in two separate experiments.”

In the first experiment, Stensel and his team observed 12 healthy college-age women who participated in three nine-hour trials, each a week apart. Each trial took place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a lab, where subjects could pass the time working at a desk, playing computer games or watching TV. All subjects were fed two standardized meals (a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise, potato chips, a chocolate muffin and a green apple) within two hours (breakfast) and five hours (lunch) into the experiment. At hour eight (dinner), subjects then had access to a buffet — including milk, cereals, breads, ham, cheese, butter, cookies, chocolate and fruit — where they could eat as much as they wanted. Subjects rated their appetite throughout the day and gave blood samples so that scientists could measure the two hormones.

The three trials were divided into three categories (control, exercise-induced and food-restricted) and occurred randomly and simultaneously. The control subjects saw no changes to the above laid-out plan. However, when exercise was introduced, the same subjects were asked to run at a high intensity for 90 minutes, burning 830 calories on average before breakfast. All meal options remained the same as in the control trial. Lastly, in the food restriction trial, scientists reduced breakfast and lunch by 415 calories total (half the amount burned during the exercise trial) to create an energy deficit through diet. Then scientists repeated this exact experiment (albeit a bit shorter) with both male and female subjects.

The results of the experiments, which were the same for both men and women, suggest that exercise curbs cravings more than a calorie-restricted diet. “When we reduced people’s food intake at breakfast and lunch, the hunger hormone ghrelin stayed very high, whereas in the exercise trial, the ghrelin remained low,” Stensel explains. “And we found the hunger-suppressant hormone, peptide YY, stayed high in the exercise trial and low in the food deficit trial throughout the day. We also found that in the food deficit trial, people expressed feeling hungrier throughout the day whereas in the exercise trial, their perception of appetite was similar to the control trial.”

When it came time for dinner in the food-restriction trial, subjects tended to go hog wild at the buffet, consuming about 940 calories on average. The same subjects responded differently during the control and exercise trials, eating 610 and 660 calories on average, respectively, at the buffet. “That 300-calorie difference is a big jump,” says Stensel, who admits further research is needed to understand the mechanisms of why this is happening.

One reason could be that when you’re exercising vigorously, Stensel speculates, “the body is prioritizing sending blood to the muscles and that might interfere with hormone release, like ghrelin, which is secreted from cells in the stomach.” Basically, if less blood is pumping through the stomach, then it can’t carry ghrelin out, which might justify its temporary suppression. “That wouldn’t explain peptide YY, so that one is still a bit of a mystery,” he adds.

While this new study doesn’t have all the answers, other researchers agree it does support a very important point. “If you’re trying to lose weight, diet and exercise is still the best approach,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C., who did not work on this study. “The exercise component is so critical.”

She added: “You can only go down in calories so low. You may lose weight initially, but when you hit a plateau in weight loss, you can’t continue to restrict calories. Also, if you’re constantly hungry, then you will likely come off the diet. We know through this study that when you add exercise to a balanced, healthy diet, it really helps with weight management and weight loss. This study also dispels the myth that when you work out a lot, it increases hunger cravings.”

The bottom line: Exercise doesn’t trigger you to eat more, but dieting alone might. So if you really want to slim down, it would sooner benefit you to hit the gym than, say, eliminate entire food groups. The good news is you don’t need to run for 90 minutes to get the best results. As little as 30 minutes of vigorous exercise (that means any activity that gets your heart pumping, like running) may help keep ghrelin, in check, says Stensel, who is currently overseeing two additional studies in this area.

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  • Cris

    Awesome! I needed that!

    • ST-Tech

      It’s bollocks

  • izzy

    A 12-person study tells us nothing; the statistical power is zilch for a study that tiny. Why on earth is this being presented as ground-breaking by MyFitnessPal? I do feel that we’ll probably find evidence for the role of exercise in weight loss beyond the other recent studies, but I will withhold judgment until I see a legit study. As a scientist myself, I am appalled at this attempt to pass off a 12-person study as good science. If this were an endangered species, it might be the best we can get. But the decision to do that for a common, overpopulated species like humans is not just impossible to draw conclusions from, it is also rather fishy because they easily could have obtained more subjects. I had 2.5 times that sample size for a rat-maze experiment I developed and conducted when I was in 9th grade. Human trials are considered small when they’re in the *hundreds*.

    • robinbishop34

      As a scientist it should be self-evident that diet is the “key to weight loss.” Exercise simply allows a person to burn any surplus calories they consume over their maintenance level. If one eats in a deficit until they reach their goal weight –at which time they would eat at maintenance level– they would lose if they didn’t move a muscle.

      • izzy

        Yes, of course. Why is this comment framed as an argument against what I said? I agree with what you said, but that’s not what my statement was even addressing. I was criticizing the validity of the study the author “referenced” and wrote an entire article about because of its tiny sample size. Without solid empirical data, the article’s conclusion is meaningless in the discussion of whether diet is more vs equally as important as exercise to weight loss. If your argument is because I implied that there are likely *some* minor aspects about how the human body responds to exercise/dieting that we still don’t understand, then I’m even more confused. There is always more to learn via science, especially in regards to something as complex as the human body, although it will likely only be *relatively* subtle/nuanced discoveries at this point because of how much we do already know.

        • robinbishop34

          They just churn out articles like this as clickbait. For some reason most people want to believe there are clever ways to circumvent the one and only thing that produces fat loss –which is calorie restriction, so they read articles like this in the hopes that there is some silver bullet solution that will allow them to eat what they want and still lose.

          • fitgirl

            But…I don’t really understand your complaint. This article IS suggesting that you must restrict your calories to lose weight, and that exercise can help you to further restrict your calories in a more successful manner, not that exercise makes you lose the weight.

          • robinbishop34

            Whatever.

          • fitgirl

            Great. Thanks for giving an adult response and breaking that down for me.

          • robinbishop34

            I break my neck on this site trying to knock everything down in simplest terms. No one ever listens. Hence the response.

          • Dustin Stout

            maybe if you had read the article instead of responding to the headline people would read what you write. You come across as a know it all. When it comes to nutrition and health, the science is always changing — being a know it all and parroting what you’ve read is incredibly naive (not to mention lacking critical thinking skills), as the science is constantly changing.

          • robinbishop34

            Calories.

          • Dustin Stout

            “Whatever” = I have nothing to say, you’re right. Gotta love people too stubborn to admit they were wrong.

          • fitgirl

            My thoughts exactly. ..

          • Roger Morris

            Caloric restriction does not work in the long term. It comes down to what you eat. Stop eating sugars and processed foods and you’ll see results.

  • davedave12

    the fittest person in the gym can work out for an hour and burn 600 calories — the fattest person in town can eat 600 calories in 5 minutes —- which affects weight more?

  • davedave12

    silly

  • Timothy Dayton

    I would never be able to just eat 600 or even 900 calories at dinner, what would I choose, a few pieces of cheese or a couple glasses of milk and you’re already close. Don’t eat that roll and dessert, forget that. 1500 calories maybe. So I eat a light breakfast, skip lunch, workout or walk and eat large at dinner, including a couple of brews or wine. I’ve lost 55 lbs over two years and feel great and I don’t mind missing lunch knowing a burger or pizza or a steak is waiting.

    • pcb123

      Everybody’s metabolism is unique. I’d be curious as to what your blood numbers are: cholesterol (HDL/LDL) triglycerides (indications of precursors for type II diabetes), A1C, etc.

  • davedave12

    You need to spend tens of thousands of dollars in grant money to find out that diet and exercise is better than diet or exercise?

  • Arthur Russell

    I eat the same all of the time. When I go through periods where I can no longer work out because of schedules, I gain weight at an extraordinary rate. I’ve battled overweight my entire life. Dieting alone never worked for me. As far as dieting goes, the best method to eat for most is to eat 5 or 6 small meals a day. It keeps your energy level up and stops you from being hungry. A meal could be a banana and an oz. of Almonds. The Almonds stop the banana from spiking your blood sugar. There is enough energy in a banana to support a workout. Knowing what foods to eat with what is a science. It’s not what you eat, but what you eat with what. Learning about nutrition helps a lot. A small piece of chicken can be a meal.

  • James A Tillman

    First of all my answer to the question of “Which is Better for Weight Loss” Diet or Exercise: The answer is diet. Part of the problem is that excess weight is a symptom of the problem. When you eat the proper diet which should consist of green leafy vegetables, dark berries, a small amount of animal protein (wild caught sea food, pastured chicken, grass fed beef) and eliminate all modern grains including and especially there generic modified versions you would balance your gut microbes. This is not calorie restriction but simply eating the foods we have been eating through a major part of our evolution. We are primates whose cells and good gut microbes have been eating a large variety (over 200) of green leafy vegetables during various seasons over the year. We were never designed to eat grains (wheat, corn, rice, barley, soy as well as legumes (beans) and consuming them slowly poisons our system and we simply do not absorb the proper nutrients. Over our lifespan various types of auto-immune diseases result from this. The author fails to mention this because he really does not understand what really is happening and is putting a band aid over a much larger problem. The main culprit is the “Standard American Diet” which is tilted toward grain and animal protein. Our technology has genetically modified these grains making them even more foreign to our bodies. We feed these grains to our fish, livestock, and poultry. None of these animals ever ate grains. So we are exposed to the grains by not only eating them directly but by also consuming these animals. These grains also serve as the foundation of most of our processed foods. This is what has caused our obesity problem.

    Exercise definitely helps curb overeating, but if we were eating the right foods then the amount of food we eat will not matter. You get the same amount of protein from spinach as beef based on the same amount of weight, The difference is the bulk and fiber from the spinach fills you. This is all explained in the book title :The Plant Paradox” that can be purchased on Amazon for $16.00.

    • pcb123

      Very well put. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve lost 50 lbs – and I work out 5 days per week doing CrossFit. But the weight did not start coming off until I changed the way I eat. I do NOT “diet.” “Diet” is “die” with a “t”. I eat nutritious food. In the article, All subjects were fed two standardized meals (a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise, potato chips, a chocolate muffin and a green apple). C’mon! Tuna with mayo? And potato chips and a chocolate muffin? And that’s considered a healthy, nutritious food choice? Eat NUTRITIOUS FOODS. That means ORGANIC veggies – lots of them. That means raw nuts – no salts or sugars. That means no red meat. That means water to drink. No dairy. No alcohol. Deserts = a piece of fresh fruit. The standard American diet is giving us school children who are morbidly OBESE, and developing type II diabetes! They waddle away from the video games long enough to cram some more gunk down their little pie holes, washed down with a 32 oz soda. For me it’s consistency. Work out five days per week, eat nutritious food, only. Oh, and before we start hearing “I’m too old” I’m 59. If I can do it, anyone can.

      • James A Tillman

        Thank you for confirming what I have said. We are truly kindred spirits. I am 60 years old and work out rotating between Taebo, weightlifting, walking and sprinting (HIIT). Like you I weighed 247 lbs in March 2017. I was working out and thought I was eating healthy (brown rice, corn, whole wheat bread, soy milk, oatmeal, some fruit and some greens etc). I went on the Plant Paradox program (eliminating the grains and beans) eating the very foods you mentioned (heavy emphasis on organic green leafy vegetables and organic fruit only in season) and lost 56 lbs in 8 months. I now weigh 191 lbs which is what I weighed in college while running track 40 years ago. Not only that but by eating the right foods my blood pressure which was high went to normal, my incontinence disappeared, my insomnia vanished, my energy level jumped, my skin became moist and full, my brain fog lifted. I literally became younger. My muscle tone changed dramatically also. I am nearly as muscular as I was running sprints in college. I am doing the exact same exercises as I was earlier this year when I weighed 250lbs. I am also eating between 2500 to 3000 calories just as you mentioned. The difference is that my body is now absorbing to proper nutrients. The leaky gut I had because of consuming the grains went away and now only the proper nutrients are being absorbed, not the foreign bacteria and toxins. The leaky gut phenomena is the root cause of all the autoimmune diseases and one of the main symptoms is obesity which your body is thinking it is under attack and thus is piling on fat to feed your white blood cells. This is what is happening to most of the US population.

        • pcb123

          You’re absolutley right – we are a pair. My numbers are close to yours: I started at 221# on a 5’8″ frame. Now, I’m roughly 171 (+.- 2 #). My BP dropped from 140 / 82 to a sustained 112/68. I wsa never a great athlete, or anything. I served as a Marine for 28 years, and had to maintain the fitness, but I was never anything special. I packed on the pounds when I retired & became very sedentary. I was becoming what I despsied: a fat old man, stuck in an easy chair, unable to move, unable to function. I see a lot of guys like that. I couldn’t do that anymore, I had to do something. I was working at US Special Operations Command, and attended the Methods of Instruction Course at Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, Fl. We had to do an initial presentation on something we enjoyed. My buddy – an Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, did one on CrossFit, clean eating and the benefits of that. The purpose of these presentations was to get us up in front of a crowd and talking. Nobody much paid attention to the subject matter, but when my buddy gave his talk, I paid attention. Careful attention, and it clicked. I searched out CrossFit gyms near my house, and found one that had just opened. I called and set up an appointment. I felt something I rarely experienced with workouts: trepidation. But, I started. I couldn’t step up on an 18″ box ten times wthout being totally winded. My deadlift was 185#. My front squat was 95#. But – I kept at it, day in, day out. Then I really cleaned up my eating. I ceased all snacking. I stopped all alcohol consumption. My wife is very, very savvy on nutrition, organic food and gluten free eating – she made sure I was eating correctly. Gradually, the pounds came off.
          Ok, I’ve gone on and on. But, it’s my soapbox. My guru? Jack LaLane. The grandfather of modern fitness.

  • john

    Eating clean and pooping less will cause you loose fat. :).